Animal welfare: Fish are complex, emotional and intelligent beings and yet we treat them so cruelly. If only they had fur – Philip J Lymbery

When I look back over three decades of progress on the way we treat animals, it has been heartening to see how attitudes and understanding have evolved to insist on better treatment.

The life of a wild salmon is very different to those raised in fish farm cages (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

New laws have been instigated to raise standards. Labelling has been introduced so we can choose eggs from hens not kept in cages. Many companies have ditched products from chickens, pigs and cows kept in the cruellest of conditions.

But there is still much more to do.

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Factory farming with all its cruelty is still sadly dominant. And tragically, one area where our treatment of animals has changed very little is with fish.

There are some who recognise the need for better fish welfare standards and know about fish sentience – how they feel pain and distress – but they are the minority. The quiet suffering of wild fish in our oceans and in fish farms tends to go unnoticed. They suffer in silence. Humanity is largely indifferent to their fate.

Science has shown that fish not only feel pain, but can also experience pleasure. Some species have demonstrated long-term memories. They exhibit problem solving abilities, and some can even use tools.

But despite being complex and emotional creatures, the welfare of fish is rarely considered in legislation or industry standards and things like slaughter without stunning are widespread.

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People are increasingly realising just how sentient sea animals, like octopus, can be (Picture: Mehmet Avadan/AFP via Getty Images)

Fish slaughter methods globally are particularly outdated and cruel. Although farmed fish in the UK are stunned before slaughter, in much of the rest of the world, most farmed fish are killed by suffocation in air, in ice water slurry or using carbon dioxide in water. Wild fish may also be killed by the gutting and processing itself. In the case of wild-caught sharks, fins are removed whilst alive and their bodies cast back into the ocean where they sink and die.

Like other factory farms, fish farms involve tremendous cruelty, with the water-borne animals kept in intense confinement. As revealed in undercover footage recently released by my organisation, Compassion in World Farming, the Scottish salmon farming industry is rife with these welfare issues as well as serious environmental problems.

Up to 50,000 salmon are often kept in a single sea cage. They can suffer from blinding cataracts, fin and tail injuries, body deformities and appalling infestations with parasitic sea lice. At current production levels, sea lice infestation and disease are out of control, causing fish suffering on an alarming scale and threatening wild fish populations.

There is no doubt in my mind, that if fish had fur rather than scales, screamed in pain and lived on land, humanity would have a much closer connection with them and, as a result, a greater respect for their welfare and protection.

Lobsters suffer extreme trauma during the boiling process and can take up to 15 minutes to die (Picture: Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

After all, few people could watch a land-based animal covered in fur, with a deformed body and little eyesight, and not feel something. Why is it so hard for some to think of fish as sentient creatures who form friendships and experience positive emotions and have personalities?

It has been hugely encouraging to see public support for the British veterinary sector’s call for lobsters to be pre-stunned rather than boiled alive whilst fully conscious. This followed clear scientific evidence that lobsters suffer extreme trauma during the boiling process and that it can take up to 15 minutes to die.

The recent and significant success of Netflix film, My Octopus Teacher, also demonstrated there are many individuals who are beginning to recognise the sentience of ocean creatures and only this week, Netflix launched a new, much acclaimed documentary Seaspiracy with the promise that the film will radically transform the way we think and act on ocean conservation. But will it? And what will it take to encourage consumers and legislators to think differently?

When all is said and done, there is no escaping the fact that fish are the most exploited group of animals on our planet. They cannot speak or show facial expressions that we recognise as being like ourselves. We may not think we have a lot in common with fish, but in reality we do. They have brains and hearts and a nervous system, they bleed when they are cut.

We all need to seize the opportunity of this year’s United Nations Food Systems Summit to move toward a global agreement to end the factory farming of all animals and of fish too. To reset our food system towards regenerative, restorative and nature-friendly ways of producing food.

To that end, I am deeply proud and honoured to have been appointed a ‘Champion’ of the United Nations Food Systems Network and that I will represent animal and fish welfare organisations in Europe and beyond, as a Food Systems Champion for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. It has never been so important for humanity, for animals, ocean creatures and for all life on Earth, to manage our food systems in a genuinely sustainable way.

The current fishing and fish farming industries are built on animal suffering and must change. In years to come, humanity will look back and be appalled at the way we treated fish and plundered our oceans.

There can be no doubt that, as our understanding of other creatures evolves, our empathy must also extend, to encompass those sentient beings covered in scales, as if they wore fur.

Philip J Lymbery is the global chief executive of Compassion in World Farming and a United Nations Food Systems Champion

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